By: Ian Clark
After 3 years of study that led to a plan, 3 years of finding money for said plan, and 1 year of fighting an ill-informed (or stubborn) mayor on the merits of the plan, transit advocates and researchers finally thought they had put the issue of building light rail transit (LRT) in Toronto’s suburbs to rest. The City would build 56 km of LRT – rather than 19 km of underground LRT and 2 km of subway – with the $8.5 billion granted by the Province for new transit construction in the City. Construction has started on Eglinton Avenue, east of Jane Street, and will begin shortly on Sheppard Avenue East (for the second time because the Mayor halted construction on this LRT line when he was elected in November 2010). This, along with an LRT route planned for Finch Avenue West, represents only a small fraction of the transit needed to service one of the fastest growing regions in the Developed World. Nevertheless, it is an important piece of the infrastructure puzzle that (after decades of inaction on the transit file) is finally being built. And for that, there is cause for celebration. Or is there?
Queen’s Park is in a state of uncertainty these days, with NDP and Conservative politicians licking their chops for a spring election. Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty resigned from his position as Premier – the Liberals are without a leader as they look at low approval ratings, an unhappy political base (further agitated by using an unpopular prorogation strategy to suspend the Legislature), monetary scandals, and budgetary deficits.
How does this effect transit in Toronto? Conservative leader Tim Hudak has started his campaigning by announcing that populism, rather than good policy, will dictate the transit file. Hudak has directed his campaigning at the Rob Ford base, and has declared that subways – not LRTs – will be built in Toronto. Just when transit users finally thought that a sizable amount of quality transit would be built across the northern sections of the City, Mr. Hudak rants. The Conservative leader vows to build subways instead of LRT (so we are back to the 21 kilometres vs. 56 kilometres of transit debate). This sets up a longer debate, more uncertainty, and more delays to transit expansion. Hudak is now promising subways after an ugly LRT vs. Subway debate at City Council that (for the second time) favoured LRT expansion, while not offering any money or revenue tools to pay for said subways. In fact, Hudak publicly noted that subway expansion funds will be delivered after the Province returns to balanced budgets (3 to 5 years away, if that). The last thing the City needs in relation to its most pressing file is further intervention causing delay, especially from a government (and specifically Tim Hudak) that terminated subway construction and filled in subway tunnels in Toronto the last time they were elected (not to mention the cutting of services and downloading of transit subsidies that continue to handicap the system today).
Myself and many other transit observers have already concluded that Hudak pulling the transit reins in Toronto would result in prolonged debate, and would derail current plans and construction. Many may already be thinking about how to progress transit expansion under Conservative leadership at Queen’s Park. Our initial response is to fight the good fight (again). Rob Ford derailed LRT plans, but a year-long attack on his decision by academics, advocates, common transit users and citizens resulted in a debate at City Council that restored LRT plans. Those looking to responsibly spend $8.5 billion on transit (which should be a small “c” conservative thing to do), can persuade Hudak to see the errors in his judgment and accept transit policy from those engulfed in it, rather than the Rob Ford transit policy he currently prescribes to.
If the good fight is lost, which I sadly expect it will be, transit advocates should not be dismissive of Hudak’s (and Ford’s) desire for subways. Subway expansion actually does make sense in Toronto and should be invested in. The issue with Ford’s “Subways Subways Subways! Plan” (for lack of a better name), was that it sought subways in areas where the investment was not justified. The City’s politicians, transportation and planning staff, and citizens need to be supportive of subway plans when they make sense. Hudak wants subways – that is great news. The City is in desperate need of a Downtown Relief Line (DRL), can happily accept a Sheppard Subway extension westward to connect to Downsview Station, or receive funding for an expansion of the Bloor-Danforth Subway line either east or west. New reports from the TTC confirm the need for subways (Steve Munro outlines the TTC’s report for a DRL here). These are all important infrastructure projects that the public and transit experts need to shape as key files for subway investment. The issue will be to put these projects on the front-burner now before Hudak frames the debate around building a subway across Rexdale Boulevard because that is where he might receive voting support.
If the pro-LRT crowd cannot win the fight to build LRT where they are needed now, they need to cut their losses and at least support building subways where they are needed now, not where the Ford policy makers think a subway sounds like a fun idea.